It has been an eventful two years for Scottsdale Unified School District as its looked for a new superintendent but all the delays, meetings and searching has led to this one moment.
Dr. Scott Menzel has arrived.
While his arrival at the district was a stroke of serendipity, he plans to carve his own future for the district, hoping to continue the momentum Dr. John Kriekard laid before him.
Whether it’s declining enrollment, school closures, COVID-19 or equity and inclusion, Dr. Menzel --- who comes to SUSD after 18 years as a superintendent in Ann Arbor, Michigan --- has goals, and in order to accomplish them he plans to rely not only on his past experiences, but the local community.
“There’s really hopefulness for what’s possible in the future and a readiness of people across the continuum,” he said. “When I say that, I’m thinking about staff within the district, teachers, administrators, central office staff as well as students and parents. Just a real willingness to do the work necessary to take Scottsdale from where it is to the next level.”
Initially, education wasn’t Dr. Menzel’s first route as he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Religion and a Master’s Degree in Philosophy and Social Policy. It wasn’t until later he earned a Doctorate in Leadership. He decided to make the switch after working in workforce development alongside a school district.
It was there he decided he wanted to work the other end of the spectrum and he transitioned to public education. He became a superintendent with no previous K-12 experience and continued that path for 18 years in Michigan.
Dr. Menzel said he initially had interest in the Scottsdale job when it was listed a year ago but said the timing didn’t line up so he didn’t pursue it, wishing the job opening came a year later. In early 2019, the Governing Board decided to delay its search and offer Dr. Kriekard another year.
When the job reopened, Dr. Menzel jumped at the chance and eventually got the leadership role. Since the SUSD Governing Board approved his contract on March 17, Dr. Menzel has immersed himself in the district though from a distance.
His official start is July 1 but he’s been involved in many committees, weekly meetings with Dr. Kriekard and helping select new principals for Pima Traditional School and Arcadia High School.
In meeting with as many people as possible, Dr. Menzel says he hopes to “triangulate the data” of the diverse viewpoints around the district. This view, he says, allows him to calculate a good landing and allows for a seamless continuance.
“Because I’ve had three-plus months of sustained engagement, I feel like I’ve been able to flatten my learning curve on the way into the district,” he said.
Trust in district leadership has grown over the past year, according to the 2019-20 Hanover Climate Study but it was still low the year prior. A lot of that sentiment stemmed from conflict-of-interest allegations against former Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell and former Chief Finance Officer Laura Smith. Ms. Smith’s allegations led to criminal charges.
Dr. Menzel said saw the efforts of the Governing Board, Dr. Kriekard and other district leaders in regaining that trust and hopes to continue that trajectory.
“In large part, (trust) is something earned,” he said. “The expectation is through clear and consistent communication, having an open-door policy and being transparent in the way that I lead, I hope to be able to build and establish a base of trust, both with internal and external stakeholders in the district.“
Furthermore, Dr. Menzel said he does not have an agenda nor will he try to impose one on the district.
“My belief is that as we talk about what the hopes, aspirations and the dreams are for the students of Scottsdale with the community, we will be able to articulate a vision of the future that we move toward together,” he said.
“My job as the leader is to coalesce that vision and then develop and implement strategies to ensure we can accomplish our shared goals for the future of our students.”
As Dr. Menzel begins this new journey, the cloud of COVID-19 will still linger, leading him and other leaders to develop ways to accomplish the goal of having a safe learning environment for all students and adheres to the district’s standards but he doesn’t want to do it alone.
“At Scottsdale Unified School District, our commitment is to educate and ensure that every student achieves their full potential,” he said. “In this environment, we’re going to learn our way into this together and it’s my hope that people will share their opinions, their hopes as well as their fears and then work with us as we navigate uncharted waters.”
With the dawn of a new era at SUSD, Dr. Menzel has three goals he hopes to accomplish for the coming school year.
First, he hopes to listen and learn. He said while he’s met many people, there are still many he has yet to meet. His hope is to learn from these people on what their hopes are for the future and what direction the district goes in the future.
While the pandemic continues, Dr. Menzel says he will keep meeting with people virtually but looks forward to when he can meet in person because he values those interactions.
The second goal is to implement “some enhanced opportunities for communication.” Dr. Menzel said he plans to draw on past experience to enhance communication, one of which includes a two-way method that worked for him in Michigan.
Dr. Menzel said it is important to be accountable and involved with the community because schools are a tax-payer resource. He also said there are many benefits to having two-way communication not only with district families, but with the surrounding community.
“The quality of the educational system has a direct impact on housing values, it has an impact on quality of life in a community and ultimately, we’re in the same boat together,” he said.
“So partnerships with others in the community, private sector, neighbors of commerce, businesses, those that will hire our students, those connections really matter and for me, it’s about nurturing those relationships for the benefit of our students.”
The third area of work Dr. Menzel will focus on is returning to school in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic as well as equity and inclusion.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman recently released guidelines for reopening in the fall after schools switched to online learning in March as a way to curb the spread of COVID-19.
SUSD has three subcommittees --- teaching and learning; operations and logistics; and social and emotional support --- addressing how school might look come the fall.
While planning is still ongoing, Dr. Menzel said he anticipates there will be three options available: in-person learning, online learning and a hybrid approach.
As part of the planning, Dr. Menzel said there is a survey out that is collecting input from parents, staff and teachers on returning in person or the other options. He also said he plans to bring a roadmap before the Governing Board at the July 7 meeting.
“We expect that there will be a group of parents that will be uncomfortable in sending their students back to school until we get a vaccine,” he said. “So we know that it’s important to have a robust and viable online education opportunity.”
At a June Governing Board meeting, Dr. Kriekard stated SUSD’s commitment to addressing diversity and inclusion through the creation of a committee featuring concerned citizens, students, administrators and teachers.
The idea is to give a voice to sections of the SUSD population that otherwise may not have been heard or given a chance to speak up. Dr. Menzel plans to carry the torch on this initiative.
“There’s an opportunity here for us to really do a deep dive and look at how we’re operating within our system,” he said.
“To that end, this work is not something that you have a few committee meetings, do some professional development and then you’re done. This is ongoing work over time. We didn’t get here overnight. We will not move to a place where we reach our aspirational goals of equity and equality ‘and justice for all’ if you think about the Pledge of Allegiance or whatever framing you want to use relating to our founding ideals as a nation.”
Dr. Menzel said racial bias and injustices do occur, especially against Black Americans. Furthermore, he said those same biases exist within the schools, particularly when it comes to suspensions and expulsions.
He claimed black students receive disproportionate discipline as opposed to white students at a national level. A study from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms this assertion while showing numerous racial minorities seeing higher levels of suspensions and expulsions.
While he hasn’t reviewed the Scottsdale data, Dr. Menzel said he still thinks it’s important to examine the district’s systems that lead to the disproportionate ratio.
“Often times a year, people talk about an achievement gap and in my mind, much of the achievement gap is due to an opportunity gap,” he said. “Students come to us from various backgrounds and opportunities and family resources, and our job as public educators is to take students from where they are and to achieve their full potential.”
Dr. Menzel said he doesn’t believe where a student grew up should determine the opportunities they may have in life. Rather, he sees public education as a way to level the playing field and offer opportunities for all, a mindset he developed during his career prior to education.
This committee, Dr. Menzel said, is only the start of what he hopes is a long-term effort to make schools a better place.
“But if we don’t attend to the issues of race and any other social identity where someone might be a victim of discrimination, then we’ll never get to that aspirational ideal of achieving their full potential,” he said.
Another challenge Dr. Menzel, who comes from a state that allows choice in schools, will address is the declining enrollment in the district. Over the past decade, the district has seen a 4,500 drop of students living within district boundaries while seeing a 780 jump in out-of-district enrollments.
While an analysis by Applied Economics showed a less steep drop than the district originally anticipated for the past school year, projections still show the strict set to continue its downward trend.
These drops have led SUSD leadership to discussion of potential school closures or consolidations. School closures are not Dr. Menzel’s priority.
He says the more efficient solution is to learn why in-district students aren’t wanting to attend their local schools.
“Coming in, I don’t start with a ‘close-a-building-down’ mentality, it’s how do we fill the building,” he said.
“But I also know that, from a financial standpoint, we also need to be honest with the conversation on what we are able to do. So it’s about engaging the community, particularly in buildings that could be impacted and developing a plan that’s financially responsible and helps move the district forward.”